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Winnipeg Free Press | 09Jan2013 | Don Marks

New light shines on city

Writing from the perspective of my 26th floor of an Osborne Village apartment overlooking the Manitoba Legislative Building and the rest of downtown Winnipeg provides numerous advantages besides the simple esthetics of a prime view.

The most obvious benefits stem from looking out at a majestic cityscape by night and day, looking down on a multitude of merry skaters along our river trail (and the traffic jams on the Osborne Bridge that a home-office slacker such as I can avoid), and the many other magnificent sights Winnipeg provides as inspiration to someone who often writes about this city.

Dominating my view, always, has been the Golden Boy, facing north to symbolize where future opportunity might lay. Nothing can quite compete with this yellow youth; not the legislative dome it sits upon, the triple towers at Portage and Main, the new Manitoba Hydro building or even that revolving restaurant, which is going to open once again.

But there is a new beacon on the Winnipeg horizon that could surpass the Golden Boy as the iconic and most readily identifiable symbol for our city.

More modern and less artistic, the lights have been turned on in the Tower of Hope atop the Canadian Museum for Human Rights and they both now shed their light upon us from roughly the same height.

Nobody would argue that opportunity is more important than human rights because the latter provides much of the base for the former. Hopefully, the education gained through experience with the CMHR will guide us all to a brighter future.

There is a catch. And it's not the gamble that a project that cost about $350 million to build and will cost about $22 million a year to operate will fail. By locating such a high-profile and ambitious undertaking here, Winnipeg has set itself up as a leading light in the fight for human rights worldwide.

Are we up to the task? The answer to that question may be found in our relationship with First Nations people who live within our midst (or who have agreed to share living space with us here in Treaty 1 territory, depending on one's perspective).

There is no huge light or even a billboard sign that identifies Winnipeg as "Canada's largest Indian reserve," but our city has long been known by that very name because it includes the largest population of First Nations, Métis and Inuit people in any urban environment in this, our home and native land.

And it sure doesn't look like we are getting along very well.

You just have to check out the readers' comments on any Internet postings about First Nations news or issues. Granted, this is not the most scientific indication of public attitudes.

We have seen, however, the CBC repeatedly come under fire for posting comments that were labelled as racist, and recently, the number of comments received for Free Press coverage of Idle No More activities dwarfed even news the NHL lockout had ended.

Twice, the FP stopped receiving comments because the almost 1,000 posts mostly did not meet "terms and conditions." Even the ones deemed acceptable contained misleading stereotypes that were often harmful and mean-spirited.

Without getting into the blame game, the facts are that First Nations people face the highest rates of poverty, unemployment, children in care, incarceration, suicide rates, lowest education levels and on and on.

On top of that is the systemic breakdown we carry in our political, social and economic environment.

But the number of comments that address these issues in a serious way backed up by research and analysis, and an attempt to understand or accommodate a contrary point of view, are few and far between.

Academics (and journalists) can claim that talk on the street or around the water cooler (or readers' postings) is not representative, but they would have a hard time convincing anybody who has his or her ear to the ground at the grassroots level.

There is a new light shining on Winnipeg. People are bound to ask what it means.

It is kind of ironic that the light of the Golden Boy shines to the north (when the legislature is in session) where First Nations people and opportunity seemed to exist in such abundance in the past. And the light from the Tower of Hope shines down on a city that now includes a large and rapidly expanding population of First Nations people where opportunity (and hope) is uncertain.

The problem is going to be that the message that light sends out to the rest of the world might be the way it should be, not the way it is.

Don Marks is the editor of Grassroots News.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 9, 2013 A6